In the shoes of… Anne Cooper| warm, caring and trying to help…

On Monday, I captured the Twitter story about Anne Cooper’s quest to navigate the process to ‘befriend’ an isolated person, playing by the rules and processes of modern day society. It made me appreciate even more the wonderful work that is happening through the Green Dreams Project mentioned in a recent blog. So near to Annie, (North East England) but yet so far.

Anne is 50. Boy, a lot of things have changed in the last 50 years. Thank you, Anne for writing this very honest and heartfelt account. Anne captures her
childhood community experience in a beautiful and very
thought-provoking way. The story really provides a context for her
recent experiences and shows us how we are perhaps letting ‘stuff’ get in the way of human connections
. Over-complicated processes, bureaucracy and the need for good local information were strong themes of last week’s ‘Care in the Digital Age’ conference in Kent.

Anne Cooper, aged 6.

Anne Cooper, aged 6.

I come from a small village in the North East of England.  The village was made up of 5 rows of terraced houses; everyone knew everyone and although I didn’t know it or appreciate it at the time there was a strong sense of community.  We lived about 6 doors away from my grandma and granddad.  We went there after school and watched Jackanory  before Mam came home from work; she used to clean in our school.  The village had two shops, Emily’s at the bottom and ‘the top shop’.  It wasn’t unusual or an elderly person to stop one of us kids on our bikes and ask us to pop to Emily’s for something or other and it all went on their ‘book’ that they paid every week.

This looks like Victorian Times but that is me and my younger sister with Billy who lived across the back way in about 1967 – we genuinely were a community

This looks like Victorian Times but that is me and my younger sister with Billy who lived across the back way in about 1967 – we genuinely were a community

Later we moved to a new house and, although it was a larger part of the network of villages, my Mam by then worked in the library and we knew everyone.  Mam would know which older people were not well as they didn’t come for the books she had picked out and put to one side for them and someone would be asked if they could check to see if they were OK.  We also had a very old lady living next door to us, she was reclusive and had dozens of cats but every Christmas morning she would come to us and at about 11 o’clock have a glass of sherry.

These experiences of my younger life have taught me that community is important and that we can help people to stay well and have good lives in communities but it needs us to make connections in the way we used to, finding those who may be lonely and alone and drawing them further into the fabric of our lives; when those older people used to stop me on my bike and ask me to pick up some bread, they were also asking how our Mam was and would I let Emily know they might be late in paying this week?  It was about networks and connections and human contact.

These days my life is very different.  Although I live in a community I spend little time during the week at home.  The houses are different too, most people have erected high fences and walls that prevent chat in the way we used to down the back way – the labyrinth of yards at the back of the houses.

Anne and bikeI value older people.  I like listening to them and chatting about their lives and they like to hear how my son is doing and looking at pictures of us all.  I feel that I don’t do enough to help people around us at home who may be lonely and just need company and someone to have a cup of tea with.  My heart broke when I watched the Hairy Bikers ‘Meals on Wheels’ programme where one man cried when they arrived; he hadn’t spoken to another soul since the last time they had been.  I wanted to do something.  But it’s a real challenge for me, I don’t spend much time locally – my work takes me all over the country – so I don’t know the community infrastructure, other than at church and in fact I have so little ‘spare’ time.

I had an idea: as a family we could befriend an older person, we could invite them to join us at some of our weekly family events. For example, we always try to have one proper meal together and one more person at the table would be little effort.  I could pick up any extra bits of shopping for someone and my husband is very handy for odd-jobs – surely we can contribute this?

First of all I went to Age UK, knowing that they have a befriender scheme.  This proved tricky, they are only open during main office hours and of course that is when I am working and have the least free time.  It took me months to find a local number, the nearest place was 10 miles away – they don’t have a scheme near us.

For a while I was daunted but talking about it on Twitter spurred me on and someone pointed me at Contact the Elderly and I was delighted to see that there was a local group. Contact the Elderly run friendship groups for lonely, isolated older people.  They get collected one Sunday a month by a volunteer driver and taken to a different volunteer host’s home each month for afternoon tea.  The drivers stay and then see the older guests safely home.  As the drivers are mainly the same each month and it is the same group of older guests, good friendships are formed.  Ah!  This was something I could do and take pleasure in.

Unfortunately, despite my making contact, I was only to discover that the local group had folded, as the organiser had left the area.

I feel frustrated and disappointed.  This is, however, a complex problem.  I only have small amounts of time to give and not enough to take on the commitment of running the group. I have few local connections other than our friendship network and our family.  In my discussions with organisations like Age UK it became apparent that they struggle to find funding for the administrative/organisational posts that they need to make this happen, often funders exclude this from the things they will provide.

My Grandma and Granddad with Trixie outside their bungalow – my Mam visited them every day until they died

My Grandma and Granddad with Trixie outside their bungalow – my Mam visited them every day until they died

I feel unsettled.  I can’t take on too much more but I feel we have more to give.  The local community isn’t like it was when I was brought up and the only way I feel I could connect is potentially through church – but I’m not a church go-er.   Communities could hold the key for making some lives better.  How can we liberate some of this for the better?  I just don’t know how I can help.

Please post comments to tell us what you think…

About Gill Phillips - Whose Shoes?

Passionate about personalisation in health & social care. Creator of Whose Shoes? - an imaginative approach to helping people work together to improve lives.
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8 Responses to In the shoes of… Anne Cooper| warm, caring and trying to help…

  1. Another fab blog, thank you for sharing your story Anne. On the face of it, everything you are wanting to do should fit into the ‘big society’ model, but clearly the mechanisms to actually make this happen UK-wide don’t exist!

    Most people are hugely busy, we have to work long hours to pay for the rising cost of living and still find time for our families and friends. For us to be able to give something back to our community requires structures being in place that don’t operate 9-5 Mon-Fri, that are innovative and yet common sense, and that match the skills of our more able citizens, like Anne, with the needs of our more vulnerable, isolated, ageing citizens.

    Like everything I would imagine this (yet again!) comes down to a postcode lottery. I’m sure there are some pockets of excellent practice, they just never seem to exist locally for anyone I know. Meanwhile isolation is one of the biggest threats to health and happiness, and it is heart-breaking to think of people who cannot get out of their homes due to health, confidence or mobility issues not having the human contact they crave.

    I hope that by sharing your story the policy makes who have the power to help to change this situation take action. It is vital to highlight experiences like yours – they serve as a reminder of just how much community spirit has been lost, and why it is so important to claw that back.


  2. What a lovely, thought-provoking account. I work in mental health and know how much loneliness plays a part in depression and, sadly, suicidality. We have lost the art of connecting, and as you say, Annie – we are very busy. New ‘communities’ are springing up in social media, but will only partly relieve that loneliness. We have to touch each other – a pat on the back, a shake of the hand, a light touch on the arm. It’s how we reassure each other that we are here and that we matter. People like you, Annie and Gill, will foster communities, forge relationships and take them from the ether into genuine connection. I commend you for that work and pledge my support. Lead on, girls!


  3. Mandy Hall says:


    I have done the reverse – moved from a fairly big commuter town and then a suburb and then up to the NE and eventually into a very small community. It still amazes me after nine years here that most people are distantly related to each other or have known each other from school etc etc. I used to be very uncomfortable with this but now appreciate it a lot better.

    I know there is always someone out there who will help in an emergency. I can pop round to a friends for a coffee or indeed, as I did in December, call on people to care for the children while I went in an ambulance with Hubby after his heart attack. ironically I make contact with all of these local people on FB or by text on a daily basis – we help each other to play games, have a moan etc online. (A lot of them are of the older generation too!)

    I don’t know the answer as it is not all good – cliques form (as in all communities), I know that due to the bedroom tax, one person from our small community (100 or so houses) may have to move away from where she has lived all her life – away from the daily wave, pop in to her neighbors / relatives as she passes. There are plans afoot in the village to set up weekly lunch clubs for the older end of the age group but that excludes those that don’t want to go (men, those who don’t want to play bingo etc), there’s a school but if your child doesn’t go there – you miss out on that social network.

    I think the answer is to be open to whatever form of communication / contact you come across. I often go for walks and find even sharing a ‘good morning, its a lovely day’ makes a difference to both the other person AND myself!


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  6. maspring37 says:

    Hi Annie, my husband had late onset diabetes and I know what trouble he had with his feet. He wasn’t allowed to cut his toenails so when he was ill in hospital , he asked me to cut them for him. Everyone knows I have a phobia of anyone touching my feet ( no toe sucking for me ),or me touching anyone else’s feet. If he wanted to tease me , he would put his feet on mine when we were in bed. I did cut them , he said he now knew how much I loved him to do it. I’d do it everyday if I could have him back.


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